For nearly 30 years, Mankato-based networking group Women Entrepreneurs in Business (WEB) has offered women across southern Minnesota the chance to come together, learn about the business world, grow as leaders and support one another.
Started in 1993, WEB—which was until recently known as Women Executives in Business—is open to any woman in a leadership position in her business, whether she’s an owner, manager, entrepreneur or simply a leadership-minded employee. The group meets once a month, bringing in industry experts as guest speakers and covering topics that range from navigating payroll to planning out how to retire.
No matter what the monthly topic is, though, one of the key principles of WEB is simply providing a space for women to support each other in their careers.
“The comradery of like-minded women is huge,” said WEB secretary Nancy Goodwin, who has also served as the organization’s president twice. “You can have this long day that’s full of whatever you’re doing… There’s always stress of some kind. At the end of the day, when I sit down [at a WEB] meeting, I feel like I’m at a coffee shop. I feel engaged. The connection is really, really helpful. Plus, we actually learn from each other.”
At the end of the day, when I sit down at a meeting, I feel like I’m at a coffee shop. I feel engaged. The connection is really, really helpful. Plus, we actually learn from each other.Nancy Goodwin
While WEB now boasts a membership of roughly two dozen women, give or take, it started off decidedly smaller. Mankato resident Linda Hachfeld got the ball rolling in the late 1980s as she worked toward starting her own business, Appletree Press. At the time, no bank would offer her a loan unless her husband co-signed, and there weren’t many other resources available for female-owned businesses, either.
As Hachfeld struggled to break into the “man’s world” of business, she met other women who had similar stories. The women began meeting together for breakfast before their work days began, using the time to network and share resources. Once in a while, they’d bring in a special guest speaker, usually another female business owner or entrepreneur in the area.
“It was a little breakfast gathering of women who owned businesses,” Hachfeld said. “We’d get together at 7:30 in the morning for an hour, and then we’d all depart to our businesses. When you gathered women business owners together, you could talk about things like, ‘Where’d you find your accountant?’ or ask about other resources.”
Hachfeld wanted to make sure the group could continue, so she reached out to the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in Mankato. But the response she received was less than encouraging.
“At that time, they just said, ‘We don’t know how to really work with women in business,’” she recalled. “They said, ‘We help anyone who calls us, but we’re not really looking at issues that women have when trying to start businesses.’ As women, we weren’t finding our voice.”
One of the things we really want WEB to be is a mentorship program. Those who are starting have a ton of questions.Linda Hachfeld
Hachfeld was not to be deterred. She wrote a grant through the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), which provided funds to the SBDC to specifically help women who owned or were starting their own businesses. The funds she received were used to hire a part-time coordinator for one year, as well as set up a membership directory. Women Executives in Business officially started in February 1993. Besides Hachfeld, three other women played key parts in the leadership team: Joanne Walberg, Karen Palmer and Susan Chambers.
After meeting with area women and asking what they wanted in a female-centered business group, Hachfeld and the others learned that most women wanted the chance to network and share resources with one another. They also wanted to be able to meet after work, so the meetings were switched to 5:30 p.m. once a month except during the summer, when the group doesn’t meet.
“One of the things we really want WEB to be is a mentorship program,” Hachfeld explained. “Those who are starting have a ton of questions, and someone sitting next to you can say, ‘When that happened to me, this is how I felt…’ Those kinds of experiences just make women better at managing their business. So, the networking part is really important.”
A Place for All Women
WEB’s membership tends to fluctuate as women move out of the area, retire or take breaks because of life circumstances. Last year, the organization ended the year with 24 active members, according to Goodwin. Registration is open for the 2020-2021 year, which starts in September, and Goodwin said about 18 women have signed up so far.
WEB draws most of its members from Mankato, North Mankato, Nicollet, Mountain Lake and the surrounding area. Several industries are represented, including real estate, law, accounting, health services, publishing, landscaping, retail and construction services.
We said, ‘We need to shift our culture a little internally and invite younger women in.’ That can be a challenge, but the current women in the organization have stepped up to it, and they’re finding a lot of value in connecting with younger women.Nancy Goodwin
“It’s fluctuating, it’s flexible and it’s fun, because you need new faces all the time,” Hachfeld said.
According to Goodwin, the organization used to be made up of mostly women 55 and older, but the demographic has shifted in recent years. Now, only about 20 percent of the members are in that age range, with many more women in their 30s-40s and some even as young as college aged.
“We said, ‘We need to shift our culture a little internally and invite younger women in,’” Goodwin said. “That can be a challenge, but the current women in the organization have stepped up to it, and they’re finding a lot of value in connecting with younger women.”
A Modern Twist
For several years, WEB has hosted its monthly meetings at the Wow! Zone in Mankato, with a few exceptions. Meetings start with a social hour and then move into the featured presentation of the month, with a time for dinner and networking afterwards. Guest speakers include female business owners who share their stories, industry experts and even Mankato’s mayor, Najwa Massad. Some meetings focus on a particular topic, such as identifying personal strengths, improving mediation skills, business troubleshooting and business sustainability. There is no attendance requirement for members, who can choose to come to whatever event interests them.
As WEB looked toward its 2020-2021 year, which starts in September, its leadership faced a unique challenge in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. With in-person meetings no longer a feasible option, the women got creative about how to still stay connected. The answer was to go virtual. Meetings will be held via Zoom until WEB’s leadership feels it’s safe to meet again in person.
“At this moment, we’ve planned to do [the whole year] online, with the hope that we can do some later on in person,” Goodwin said. “That’s going to remain up to what’s state mandated and how people feel about it and their comfort level.”
In addition, in order to help members during these tough economic times, WEB has dropped its yearly membership rate from $90 to $30.
“There are a lot of women and businesses who are struggling, and some are failing, and we’re just trying to do everything we can to provide extra value and opportunity to gather, so that they don’t feel so isolated,” Goodwin said. “One of the worst things right now is the isolation.”
WEB’s first meeting of the 2020-2021 year is scheduled for Sept. 3 at 7 p.m. Anyone can attend the meeting free of charge if they’re interested in seeing what WEB is all about. Those interested should reach out to Goodwin by September. 1 so that she can send out a virtual invitation.
“This is an opportunity for any and all women in business to connect and not be so isolated, and to have peers that they can talk about with and connect with each other,” Goodwin said. “We build these deep relationships that are so helpful. I know there are women who are struggling. We want to be there for them.”